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Cornelius News

Local governance: Change was in the wind long before election

From left: Dave Gilroy, Michael Osborne, Colin Furcht and Todd Sansbury / Photos by Jason Benavides

Dec. 14. By Dave Yochum. Ron Kelley saw it coming. Back in January he penned an open letter to the mayor and the five members of the Town Board, saying it is the job of our board of commissioners to “carefully listen” to what the voters want and “take actions that support the desires of the majority.”

“The board over the last five years has veered more and more away from that,” said Kelley, a long-time resident of the Patrick’s Purchase neighborhood.

Duke

The issue then was a plan for a 199-foot cell tower, not in Kelley’s neighborhood, but just outside Jetton Cove, opposite Charles Towne Lane. Nearby residents spoke out strenuously against the tower, saying that it would overshadow their neighborhood. The board voted 3-2 in favor of the tower, with Denis Bilodeau and Jim Duke on the losing side.

Bilodeau

Jim Duke then brought a symbolic Wilson basketball to subsequent Town Board meetings, a la Cast Away with Tom Hanks, and implored the other members of the Town Board to start listening.

‘What the heck just happened’

Fast forward to November and the three winners on the cell tower vote—Dr. Mike Miltich, Thurman Ross and Tricia Sisson—lost by wide margins.

So did Jim Duke, who said “what the heck just happened” soon after the Nov. 2 election in which four of five sitting commissioners were “sent packing”—Duke’s words.

Much happened between the cell tower vote Ron Kelley wrote about in January and Election Day.

Come spring and summer there was the Mayes Meadows project which brings 160 homes to land once designated rural preservation. That vote went 4-1 in favor of the rezoning, with Duke dissenting.

Duke went in a different direction on the new apartment project known as Junker Place, going along with a redo of the project done on the fly “live” during a June 21 Town Board meeting. Denis Bilodeau was the lone dissenter, saying that there was no public input on the new plan for 195 apartments on 12 acres backing up to the Jetton Cove apartments where Anthony Grisanti is president of the homeowners association, the same one that opposed the 199-foot cell tower.

‘Dissregard to citizen input’

“The commissioners voted on the fly…it’s a total  disregard to citizen input,” Grisanti said.

Smacking up against the mayor’s endorsement of the five incumbents were endorsements of Gilroy by influential Republicans NC Rep. John Bradford, a Cornelius resident and key influencer, and John Aneralla, the three-term mayor of Huntersville.

There was one more critical issue—the Caroline and Greenway Gartens projects—that pit residents against a town board that unanimously approved 650 new residential units, an Olde Mecklenburg brewery and beer garden and commercial space.

Park & Recreation Board Chair Scott Higgins said more review and planning were needed to address concerns about traffic and safety as well as a comprehensive town center plan.

In front of the steps of Town Hall

Balancing act

Former commissioner Dave Gilroy was more blunt: Calling the number of apartments “insane,” he said commissioners needed to look at the big picture.

“We need balance. Enough is enough,” the long-time commissioner said just as the campaign season was getting under way after Labor Day.

He was the leader of the four challengers, himself included, who knocked off the incumbents, and clipped the wings of Mayor Woody Washam (see sidebar below) who was known as a powerful mayor in a weak-mayor form of government where he can only cast a tie-breaking vote.

The four challengers’ campaign signs were soon everywhere in Jetton Cove. They took out a full-page ad in Cornelius Today outlining a “Contract with Cornelius” pledging a 6-month time-out on new residential development projects, not to mention pledging to vote against changing land currently designated Rural Preservation to allow more density—the Mayes Meadows issue.

Antiquity residents held neighborhood meetings where the four challengers were cheered as they spoke.

Meanwhile, Bilodeau, who voted against Junker and the cell tower, subtly distanced himself from the four incumbents. An in years past, his Election Night party was held at a different venue than the mayor’s and the four incumbents.

For some, shock

There was definitely shock and gloom at their party, according to those who attended.

Gilroy said the results of the election came as no surprise to him.

“The strength and clarity of the community’s voice Nov. 2 was humbling, but not really very surprising. The message is just common sense—if you’re elected to represent people, then listen carefully and do what they want you to do,” said Gilroy, who served 14 years on the Town Board before losing his bid for re-election in  2019.

Gilroy will be arguably the more powerful figure in local politics given his ability to vote on Town Board matters as well as his relationship with fellow challengers Colin Furcht, Michael Osborne and Todd Sansbury who will join Bilodeau on the town board.

As the highest vote-getter, he was selected mayor pro tem by his peers on the Town Board at the Dec. 6 Town Board meeting.

No tax increase

Gilroy

“Based on all of my early meetings with town management and our new board members, I’m pleased to report that citizens can expect no tax increase for our next fiscal year,” Gilroy said.

A budget surplus from the current fiscal year will help, but so will tax revenue from new developments approved by the outgoing Town Board.

Voters sent a messsage

The voters spoke, but what exactly did they say?

Sansbury

This is Todd Sansbury’s first election and first elected office.

“Cornelius citizens stated they didn’t feel their concerns were being addressed,” he said, explaining that projects were approved too quickly or changed at the last minute, and that developers were given time for lengthy presentations while ordinary citizens were limited.

“Some leaders had a different vision for Cornelius that didn’t mimic local desires,” he said.

Furcht

This is also Furcht’s first elected office.

“I heard the community loud and clear. They wanted change. Slow this aggressive growth, limit high-density residential projects and do everything we can to accelerate road projects,” he said.

Osborne is a former member of the Planning Board, so he’s familiar with developers—and their right to develop property just like all the others have done before them.

Osborne

What did voters say? “They said it is time for government to get back to listening to its citizens. They want to feel safe. They want to contribute to what Cornelius will look like in 10 to 20 years or even 30 years. They don’t want to prioritize new development over infrastructure. They want a high quality of life that is the product of a plan that considers the impact development has on roads, schools and parks,” Osborne said.

The four ran and were elected based on calling for a “time-out” for new residential development in the first 45 days.

Osborne said that is still the plan.

In his own words: Mayor Washam on the local election

In reflecting on the recent election in Cornelius, I am very understanding of the message that the citizens of Cornelius have provided.  Our staff and I will be working diligently to serve our citizens based on this message from the voters.

Washam

While our turnout in this election was disappointing, four commissioners were replaced.  I have spent significant time with this new incoming slate of Commissioners and believe they will be both effective and responsive to the needs of our citizens as well as do what is best for Cornelius.

The new board members will replace a hard-working and very experienced board.

However, the newly electeds are smart and on a fast track to get up to date to move our town forward.

Change can be refreshing and I look forward to working with each of them as we move our priorities forward and create new ones during the next two years.

—Woody Washam, mayor Town of Cornelius

Discussion

One Response to “Local governance: Change was in the wind long before election”

  1. I truly don’t believe that Bradford’s support had anything to do with any of the commissioners being elected.

    Posted by cheryl | December 14, 2021, 6:14 pm

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